Nov. 21, 2013
NEW ORLEANS - They are the John Stockton and Karl Malone of Tulane volleyball.
One is an assist machine, passing with pinpoint precision from all parts of the court to just inches from the net, setting up her teammates as best as anyone else in the nation.
The other is the beneficiary of many of those passes, leaping through the air and finding holes in the opponents' defensive schemes before unleashing her dynamic attacks that have made her one of the top scoring players in Tulane volleyball history.
Both came to the program from different parts of the country prior to the 2010 season in the hopes of continuing the success that Tulane volleyball tasted during the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
However, during their first three seasons wearing the Olive and Blue, the duo were a part of over twice as many losses as they were wins. Many teammates and even some coaches came and went during their time on the Uptown campus. Both have missed time due to injuries sustained while sacrificing their bodies for the game they love. They have also had to juggle difficult course loads that coincide with being a student-athlete at Tulane University.
"Tulane was actually one of the last schools that talked to me," stated Martone.
It's hard to believe that one of the best players in Tulane Green Wave history could have slipped through the fingers of the program Martone eventually called home. Being from just 70 miles up the road, prepping at St. Joseph's in Baton Rouge where she was named to the LHSAA All-State volleyball team during her junior and senior seasons, Martone did not really consider Tulane until late in the recruiting process.
But at a national tournament with her club team, some of the Tulane coaches came to talk to her parents, planting the seed that Martone could be a part of the Green Wave volleyball program.
"After my parents talked to the coaches, they told me that it was easily the best academic school that I got an offer from. That wasn't as important to me, as I wanted to go to a top-notch volleyball program. But when I looked into them, they had done well in the past few years."
A few months after Tulane's coaching staff made their move on Martone, she and her family made an unofficial visit to the Uptown campus in the dead of summer. Martone and her family didn't get to see a majority of the campus due to the typical mid-summer afternoon rainstorms that plague New Orleans, forcing the Martone's to duck in and out of buildings across the long, narrow campus. However, there was one thing that sold Martone on the university, and it did not have anything to do with any kind of recruiting tactic from the Green Wave coaching staff.
"I love the trees on campus," said Martone with a smile. "My teammates give me heck for it. I just love the way the campus looks. I called the coaches and said `I want to come to your school.'"
But all of the beautiful trees that pepper Tulane's campus could not prepare Martone for what was to come during the next three years. Tulane posted a decent record of 13-19, including a mark of 10-10 in Conference USA, during Martone's freshman year. But the next two years saw Tulane win only nine and six matches, respectively.
"It was tough," sighed Martone. "Our first match of our freshman year, we played Stanford. They were ranked fourth in the nation. I think (losing to them) made us timid and not very confident. I think that carried onto the next few years. We played tough teams during my freshman year, and we didn't really compete well. That snowballed into my sophomore and junior years, and then we didn't have any recruits during my junior year." While the team didn't put many wins on the board, Martone managed to notch the third-most kills on the team during her freshman year to earn the Conference USA Freshman of the Year Award before leading the team in kills and points during the last two seasons.
This season, she has vaulted herself into the top ten in school history in a number of categories, ranking ninth in kills, tenth in points, 14th in total blocks, 17th in digs and 24th in assists in Tulane history, making her one of the most complete players in the history of Green Wave volleyball.
Oh, and this season has brought wins. More than four times as many wins as last year. As a matter of fact, the Green Wave have posted the NCAA's biggest turnaround from the 2012 season to the 2013 campaign as they've won 20 more matches this season than they did last year.
"When you are losing as much as we did, you wonder why you torture your body and put yourself through so much stress," stated Martone. "But this year, it's just been so easy. Everything has been easy. I don't think I have enjoyed playing volleyball as much as I have this year. As a team, we are all happy to be at practice and happy to be around each other. Things are just so much better."
While Martone is a product from just up the road, Mandelbaum is a West Coast kid, having played her prep volleyball in Clovis, Calif. - over 2,100 miles away from Tulane's campus.
Despite the distance in proximity to New Orleans, Mandelbaum made waves during her high school days, catching the eyes of the Tulane coaching staff, including then-assistant and now head coach, Sinisa Momic.
"I was looking at a couple of different schools on the West Coast, but during the Junior Olympics, Sinisa saw me play," said the senior setter. "The next day in the airport, I got a call saying they wanted me to come visit (Tulane). I was on my way to visit some schools in California, so I told them I had to visit those before I came to Tulane. I left from San Diego and came to Tulane, and I was offered a scholarship right away. I committed the next day. I just loved it."
But like Martone, Mandelbaum did not know how grueling the next three years would be.
"It's been difficult, because my high school and club volleyball teams were very successful," said Mandelbaum. "My junior and senior years of high school, we were a top-eight team in division one in California."
The Green Wave volleyball program's finest years seemed to coincide with the individual success that Martone and Mandelbaum had during their junior and senior seasons in high school. In 2008, the Green Wave captured the Conference USA regular season and tournament championship, earning the program's first NCAA berth. Despite finishing just 18-10 overall the following season, Tulane posted a league record of 12-4, sending them to their second consecutive NCAA Regional.
The Green Wave have not been back since.
But that is no fault of Mandelbaum, who over the course of her career has become one of the greatest setters in the history of the Green Wave volleyball program. Through the first three years of her career, Tulane played in a 6-2 rotation, using two setters as opposed to just one, which the Green Wave use now. Despite this rotation, Mandelbaum posted 2,352 assists, placing sixth in Tulane history.
This season, Mandelbaum has vaulted herself to second in school history, totaling 1,180 assists this year, good for the ninth most in a single season in Tulane history. While Jennifer Witte, who played with the Green Wave from 1998-01, holds the all-time record for career assists with 4,329, she did so during a time where only side-outs gave a team a point, and where sets went to 30 points. Had Mandelbaum played with those rules, she may have challenged the Green Wave's all-time assists leader.
Mandelbaum stayed as positive as she could during the tough times that she and her teammates faced throughout her first three years. During the 2012 campaign, she knew they were close to being where they needed to be, as they played a slew of matches to five sets, only to lose during the final frame.
"I always felt that we had all of the potential, but we just couldn't get it out of us," stated Mandelbaum. "Last year, our whole season could have been different had we won more of those five-set matches. But I just kept thinking about how difficult my first two years in high school were before our team got better. I just knew that we would eventually pull it together during my older years at Tulane."
What a difference a year makes.
After only winning 28 matches through their first three seasons combined, Martone and Mandelbaum have played a significant role on a team that has nearly equaled that win total in just one season, as the Green Wave will head to the Conference USA Championship in Murfreesboro, Tenn., with an overall record of 26-3. Martone and Mandelbaum were both named to the All-Conference USA First Team, and Mandelbaum became the first setter in school history to be awarded with the league's Setter of the Year honor.
Both girls say they couldn't have accomplished everything they have without the other.
"Mel's ability to read where blockers are headed on the other side of the net to set up holes for her hitters makes it easy for all of us. She is the reason it is easy for us. I wouldn't be as successful as I have been without her," said Martone of Mandelbaum.
Mandelbaum returns the praise to Martone.
"Cori and I definitely have a special connection. She jumps so high. She doesn't make it hard to set her. I can just kind of feel where she is on the floor. A lot of times, we'll change things up mid-play, but we can do it, and then we just laugh because it just works. It has been a growing process, but to have the success we have had during our senior year means a lot to both of us."
Momic, is thrilled that all of the blood, sweat and tears that the two have put into the program is finally turning into some wins.
"I'm so happy that we have had the season we have had for our seniors," said Momic. "Let's face it, the last few years have been tough for them. It's been tough for all of us. I'm very grateful we are experiencing something like this. Mel and Cori are playing on a really high level this year, as they always have."
"Mel is one of the best pure setters we have ever had in this program," continued Momic. "She has battled some injuries and she has not had the depth of hitters like we have had this year. Everything has been in place for her this year. She is healthy and she has hitters to work with. She has an incredible IQ and she knows how to make quick decisions."
"I think Cori has improved every year, but this senior year, she made a huge jump," said Momic of his middle blocker. "She has improved on understanding the game and playing her role. The pressure has been off her back this year since we added some other hitters. But overall, I think she is one of the top two or three players in the league. She is so athletic and physical. She is a really good blocker and server, she puts up a lot of kills, she is our best serve receiver, she has really quick reflexes on defense. She really is leading the team in so many different ways."
Martone and Mandelbaum are not the only reason the Green Wave had found success this year, and they are quick to reflect the praise heaped on them to the other 15 girls on the roster.
Juniors Anna Wruck, Olivia Utt and Grace Weaver have all logged significant playing time over the last few seasons, including this year where Wruck has been stellar at the net and Weaver is one of the best diggers in the conference, starring at libero after playing her first two years as an outside hitter.
And if you are talking about the success the 2013 Tulane volleyball team has had, you can't leave out the contributions of newcomers Tea Juric - who earned the Conference USA Freshman of the Year award - Annie Shurtz, Sarah Strasner, Makenzie Frieden, Miah Diirell, Ally Frank, Lauren Etta and Amy Lanski have made. Some of them fill up the stat sheets on a nightly basis, while others are just biding their time before they get to see serious action once this current senior class moves on.
But anyone who is remotely familiar with Tulane volleyball knows that there is no way the team would be in the position it is in today without their two senior leaders in Martone and Mandelbaum.
Like Stockton and Malone, it's possible that Martone and Mandelbaum come up short in their quest for a championship. Anything is possible in sports. However, the way the Green Wave are playing, thanks in part to these two seniors, there is as good of a chance as ever that the program will capture their first league title since 2009.
But if the Green Wave are stopped along the way to a conference title and are, for some unjust reason, kept from making the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team, robbing another part of the nation from seeing the true talents bestowed upon these two seniors, then like Stockton and Malone, Mandelbaum and Martone will still go down in history.
Because not only have Mandelbaum and Martone been proficient in their sport during their 100-plus matches throughout their collegiate careers, they have done so with many qualities that athletes across America - both amateur and professional - lack.
Mandelbaum and Martone play the game of volleyball with passion. They play the game of volleyball with respect for their teammates, their coaches and their opponents. They play the game with pride. They play the game with all-out energy at every single moment.
In a day and age where athletic success is measured solely by wins and titles, what Cori Martone and Mel Mandelbaum have endured and accomplished during their four years at Tulane is worth more than any ring or banner or trophy or record.
And like Stockton to Malone, tales of everything that Martone and Mandelbaum have done for the Tulane volleyball program over the last four years will be shared for years to come by everyone who was fortunate enough to be a part of their roller coaster ride.
Fans can follow the Green Wave volleyball program on Twitter (GreenWaveVB) or on Facebook at facebook.com/GreenWaveVolleyball.